A LITTLE LAUGHTER IN THE FACE OF A PANDEMIC…‘Rock Comedy Show’ highlights Pittsburgh’s Black comics

LEON ROCKYMORE, second from right, created “The Rock Comedy Show” to give mostly-local Black comics a chance to showcase their skills and brighten people’s days in the face of the COVID-19 pandemic. The show is online-only due to COVID. Also pictured are Pittsburgh comics One Eye, Samantha Bentley and Izzy 4 Real, a 2014 West Mifflin in Area High School graduate. (Photo by Rob Taylor Jr.)

by Rob Taylor Jr.                                                                                                                                      Courier Staff Writer

A once-in-a-century coronavirus pandemic has killed 630,000 people nationwide, including 28,000 in Pennsylvania and more than 2,000 in Allegheny County.

Many businesses in Downtown Pittsburgh and elsewhere have closed for good, leaving people without jobs.

And the debate over mask-wearing has become so politicized that parents in school districts are throwing proverbial chairs at school board members over it.

Is there any reason to smile these days?

Of course there is, say Pittsburgh’s Black comics, who are trying their hardest to make you fall out your seat in laughter during these trying times.

LILLIAN CANNON, a Penn Hills resident, is one of the featured comics on The Rock Comedy Show.

Fourteen local comics will be featured in the latest season of “The Rock Comedy Show,” a one-hour, seven-episode series that airs Wednesday nights at 9 p.m. beginning Aug. 25. It can be viewed online and on social media, by searching The Rock Comedy Show, and at rockcomedyshow.com.

“A lot of comics like to say, the best way to cleanse a soul is through laughter; it’s not just through tears,” said Leon Rockymore, creator of The Rock Comedy Show, which had its first season from January to March of this year.

LEON ROCKYMORE AND HIS WIFE, SHAQUANNA ROCKYMORE, co-owners of Roxamore, LLC. The Rock Comedy Show is part of the Rockymore’s company, which also specializes in films, sports, and live-streaming. (Photos by Rob Taylor Jr.)

Rockymore, a Pittsburgh native who grew up on the South Side and graduated from Carrick High School in 1999, started his own company, Roxamore, LLC, in 2006. In addition to his company broadcasting local high school sports, producing films and live-streaming graduations and weddings, Roxamore also streams funeral services live for those who are unable to attend due to COVID restrictions.

“While I’m at these funerals doing ministry work, I’m learning the reason why the person died. I started seeing that a lot of these caskets were for suicide,” Rockymore told the New Pittsburgh Courier in an exclusive interview, Aug. 23.

Rockymore’s findings weren’t unique to the Pittsburgh Black community. Across the nation, there has been an increase in suicides by African Americans during the pandemic. Specifically, a study led by researchers at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, Md., found that suicides among Black Maryland residents had doubled in the first three months of the pandemic (March to May 2020) as opposed to the average number of Black suicides during that time in 2017-2019. From March 5 to May 7 in 2017, 2018 and 2019, Black suicides averaged 11.3. But in the same period in 2020, the number ballooned to 22. The 22 suicides in that time frame in 2020 were vastly higher than the 12 in that span in 2019, 14 in 2018 and 8 in 2017.

The same study revealed that among the White community in Maryland, suicides went down during the first three months of the pandemic, from 72 in 2019 (pre-pandemic) to 43 in 2020. Paul Nestadt, M.D., the Johns Hopkins professor who directed the study, said that it was possible White residents found greater social supports during the first pandemic peak than Black residents, or had a deeper economic cushion to ride out the shutdown.

Suicide hit very close to home for Rockymore; he had a friend in the Pittsburgh area who committed suicide in July. His wife’s brother, also committed suicide.

Other funerals that Rockymore would live-stream were people who died specifically from complications due to COVID-19. But family members of the deceased would discuss how hard it would be to move forward. “They can’t cope, they can’t grieve, they can’t heal,” Rockymore told the Courier. “So we wanted to try to provide an option to help people heal.”

Thus, the virtual comedy show idea was born.

“A good remedy to battle mental depression is through laughter,” Rockymore, a 2004 graduate of Penn State University, said. “It’s not the only factor, but it’s a great asset to help when people want to smile again, to let some things go.”

MEOSHE JENKINS AND JEMAINE THOMAS enjoy the jokes during a special advance screening of the first episode of season 2 of The Rock Comedy Show, at Rocks Landing in McKees Rocks, Aug. 23.

“Comedy is healing. It’s my mechanism for everything,” voiced longtime Pittsburgh comic “One Eye,” who grew up in Homewood and is featured on the upcoming season of The Rock Comedy Show. “I laugh my way through a lot. Anything that hurts, anything that makes me happy, it’s material.”

PITTSBURGH COMIC “ONE EYE”— “Comedy is healing. It’s my mechanism for everything.”

One Eye now mentors younger Pittsburgh comics trying to get into the game. But he remembers the comics that dominated the scene in town when he got started in 2002, people like David “The Frog” Bey and Ty Mack. One Eye used to “rip” and “roast” on everybody who’d come into Notorious Styles barber shop in Wilkinsburg in 2002, and soon was invited to an open mic night at the former Too Sweet lounge in Homewood. In the coming weeks, he found himself doing a set at Clarion University.

“I fell in love with it (comedy) right then,” he told the Courier. “Laughter is one of the many art forms…like singing, poetry…just to get it out and express it,” helps people to better cope with things they’re dealing with, he said.

PITTSBURGH COMIC SAMANTHA BENTLEY

Samantha Bentley told the Courier that “comedy is therapy. I talk about issues with my family, I talk about the fact that I just found out who my real father is. I’ve suffered through depression, and to throw on a movie or get around my comedian friends, I can laugh through almost anything.”

Bentley was raised in Garfield and has been doing comedy for more than 10 years. She got her start on “Off Da Grill,” a show created by Howie D. Mac that aired on PCTV-21. She’s been named “best comic” in Pittsburgh twice, in 2019 and 2020. As a person who had an abusive background growing up, she said, Bentley told the Courier that she used laughing back then and now “as a coping mechanism. It works.”

Speaking with a licensed professional who deals with a person’s problems, mental state/health, etc. is always strongly encouraged for people going through crisis situations. But Rockymore said that the comedy show is just his way, through his talents with video production, etc., to give people an outlet to put smiles on their faces in the face of a pandemic that wants to only cause grief. After seeing incremental success with season 1, he’s determined to reach more people for season 2.

“Some of the episodes on season 1 had a couple thousand views,” Rockymore told the Courier, “which means people are actually taking a liking to laughing again.”

(Editor’s Note: Those who are in need of crisis intervention in Allegheny County can call UPMC’s Resolve line at 1-888-796-8826. The National Suicide Prevention Hotline is 1-800-273-8255.)

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